Refresh: The Platform

Recently, I started looking into our upcoming device refresh. We are already two and a half years into the iPad project at Cedars and the first three years will be over before we know it. It's crazy to think how quickly the time has gone.

Anyway, the first question I had to ask myself was: are we sticking with iPad?

The question that naturally arises from that is: what else could we use? Since 2010, we've seen a lot of "iPad killers" announced by the media, but precious few have actually made a serious dent in the iPad's position as the leading post-PC device. In 2010, choosing the iPad was a radical and bold step. In 2013, it seems like the obvious thing to do.

But is it? Where is the competition? What's changed since 2010?

Well, we're now in a world where there are a few more players than there were before. I've looked at all of them in some detail - some more than others, I admit, since my research budget comes out of my own pocket - but we're essentially looking at the following:

  • iPad or iPad mini
  • Amazon Kindle Fire
  • Microsoft Surface (or some crappier hardware running the same OS)
  • Google Nexus 7 (or some crappier hardware running a vendor-contaminated version of the OS)

Let's think about each of these competitors in turn:

Amazon Kindle Fire

The Kindle fire is getting better with each iteration. I don't particularly like the hardware but, as I keep writing, I'm not that interested in hardware. I'm interested in software. Amazon's fork of Android appears to be designed to do two things well: connect you to the Amazon content you've bought and show you more Amazon content to buy.

This is hardly a surprise. It's a conspiracy but quite an open one: Amazon wants to make money when you use the device, not when you buy it. The Kindle Fire is sold at below cost and Amazon makes it all back and more when you buy stuff from Amazon. As a consequence, the design of the system will necessarily be biased towards leading you down this path of seeing and buying things from Amazon. That's a product that a lot of people want - and that's fine - I'm just not sure it's the kind of thing I want to put in front of schoolchildren.

As educational technologists, we can't be naive about the business models behind these devices. The Kindle Fire is a vending machine for Amazon content.

Microsoft Surface

In recent Q&A sessions, I've been asked about the Surface far more than Android tablets. I guess this is because most schools are "Microsoft schools" - not that prior experience with Windows 7 will necessarily help you much when confronted with a Windows 8 tablet. There seems to be an idea abroad that if you get a Surface all your existing software will work with it. Almost nobody seems to have grasped the impact of the distinction between Windows RT and Windows 8.

My line on Windows 8/RT and Surface has been this: we know from a decade of trying that nobody wants the traditional Windows desktop on a tablet. Swivel-screen laptops have sucked for years and I'm willing to bet this trend continues. The only interesting thing about Windows 8 is the Metro UI and the only interesting thing about the Metro UI is whether developers will redesign their software for it. Given that Microsoft themselves haven't managed to properly redesign Office or Explorer for Metro yet, I'm not holding my breath.

Windows 8/RT may be a smash hit but the early indications are not promising. Microsoft Surface may be a smash hit but the early indications are not promising. I'm open minded about Windows 8 but I'm going to need to see some compelling evidence that Windows 8/RT is gaining serious traction in the marketplace. Microsoft is way behind on tablets and I don't have any need to root for the underdog.

Google Nexus 7

I've written before about the Nexus 7 specifically and I don't intend to rehash that discussion here except to note three major failings in the hardware for school use: the 16:10 aspect ratio of the screen; the lack of a rear camera on the device and the Nexus 7's inability to be connected to a projector. I just don't think I could sell my teachers on the idea that they'll go another three years without a camera or the ability to project devices on-screen.

There's also the software problem. Unless it's gotten dramatically better in the two months since I gave my Nexus 7 away, there simply does not exist the same high-quality productivity and creativity tools for Android tablets as exist for iOS. As before, I'm not saying they can never be made; I'm just saying they still don't exist. Where good Android tablet apps do exist they are, broadly speaking, near pixel-perfect clones of the iOS versions - so what's the advantage?

I'm also seriously concerned about the Android malware problem. There seems to be growing evidence that Android is the main target for mobile malware. This is hardly surprising, given the ability to side-load apps onto the device from anywhere on the web. I can't find any way on Android to lock out the ability to side-load, so we have to assume that this is something that some users will do. We know from decades of experience with Windows that such a model is problematic. I'm not prepared to deploy a platform where I have to routinely run anti-virus.

Whatever is working for Android in handsets simply isn't translating into traction for Android tablets. I have my theories but that's another post for another time. I can't say I have any great excitement about any Android device that isn't "pure Google". The track record on timely updates to non-Google Android devices doesn't seem to have gotten much better. Given the threat-rich environment that Android devices now face, being unable to get updates and security patches in a timely manner is unacceptable.

Most people's interest in Android in education is about price. Yes, the Nexus 7 is cheaper than an iPad but my retort is that it's a lesser device with fewer hardware features leading to greatly reduced usefulness in the classroom. Again, I come back to my core belief about tablet computers: the hardware is irrelevant except insofar as it allows you to have a great experience of software. You don't buy hardware in isolation; you buy it to run software.

The next gambit is usually that you can get £50 Android tablets for school. To people seriously arguing this I ask you: what computer are you using? I'm only interested in hearing about £50 Android tablets from people who are themselves using £50 Android tablets on a regular basis - which is, of course, 0% of the people arguing this. This is because £50 Android tablets suck.

iPad

And so to the iPad. It's worked well for us, so why change? Nothing's perfect and I promise you that nobody has a more comprehensive list of things that are annoying about iOS than I do. Yet, despite those niggles, I still believe the iPad is the first education computer worth criticising.

The hardware itself has held up well. Our failure rate has been in the low single-digit percentages over three years. There have been zero unfixable problems. Over three years, I have not once had to completely 'reformat' a device. The only time I get an iPad back in my hands is when it's physically broken. The track record on updates has been excellent; we have now had three major releases of iOS on the same hardware for free. The software ecosystem has grown into an incredibly rich and powerful set of tools. We routinely do things today that I was told would never be possible on iPad. We got a free cloud-based backup system that genuinely works. We got a powerful and free course management tool in iTunes U. iBooks Author is another powerful and free tool. iOS deployment techniques have advanced immeasurably since 2010.

So what's Apple's deal? There's no free lunch, right? Well, it's again simple and not a secret: Apple wants you to buy a new device on a regular basis. That's how Apple makes their money. Apple's cut of the App Store revenues don't even move the needle on their finances. Apple doesn't want to sell you apps or content; they'd much rather give all that away for free to make the hardware a more attractive proposition. Witness the number of free apps on the App Store. Commoditising your complements is a great strategy and it's working very well for Apple - although perhaps not so well for the app developers. Apple is a hardware company that makes great software.

Apple wants to sell you a computer. Amazon wants to sell you stuff while you use the computer. Google wants to sell your activity on the computer to advertisers. At the end of the day, it's all about what you can live with. We are now three years along the iOS road. It was the right decision in 2010 and I think it's going to be the right call in 2013 too.